Mon, 24 Jan 2000

President's men unhappy with free press

JAKARTA (JP): Press freedom, one of the symbols of democracy, will at some point scare all the President's men, regardless of their commitment to democracy.

The semblance of fright unfolded on Saturday when some palace officials expressed their disappointment with the Jan. 21st edition of the International Herald Tribune which carried President Abdurrahman Wahid's picture on its front page.

The photo, captioned 'President Wahid of Indonesia taking a break during the unveiling of his 2000 budget in Jakarta on Thursday,' clearly shows the President napping.

"The President did not sleep, he just listened attentively," an official said on Saturday.

State-owned TV station TVRI, which broadcast the session live, also shot the moment.

Abdurrahman was attending a House of Representatives plenary session to hear Vice President Megawati Soekarnoputri unveil the 2000 draft budget.

During the era of former president Soeharto, who resigned in May 1998, military and other government institutions would not have tolerated such a picture in the media.

"Some of my colleagues found it difficult to understand the photographer's choice," said an official.

But the President himself just laughed when told about the photo, according to the official, who requested anonymity.

Abdurrahman is famous for his habit of falling asleep when meeting with guests or attending a seminar, but also for waking up and responding perfectly to his counterpart's remarks.

Minister of Foreign Affairs Alwi Shihab disclosed how he would stay alert to ensure that the President would not be drowsy when talking with U.S. President Bill Clinton at the White House in November.

There is no doubt about Abdurrahman's strong commitment to free press. He appointed former Kompas journalist Ratih Hardjono as the presidential secretary and Tempo editor Wahyu Maryadi as his protocol affairs chief.

He regularly meets with the press, and will not hesitate to answer even sensitive questions. He statements often provoke controversy, but he very rarely retracts them or blames journalists for misquoting him.

In his interview with private TV station TPI, broadcast on Sunday evening, Abdurrahman unveiled many jokes, including on his recent meeting with Clinton.

His inner circle officials however began to take some measures to protect their boss from the press. Journalists are surprised with the attitudes of his newly installed aides Marsilam Simajuntak and Bondan Gunawan, who serve as Cabinet secretary and secretary of government supervision, respectively.

The two were previously known as staunch antigovernment activists.

Bondan allowed only one journalist to pose a question when the President held a media briefing last Monday. Only after protest from a foreign journalist did he allow a female reporter to ask an additional question. (prb)